Esteemed novelist and memoirist Edmund White’s latest book, “Our Young Man,” centers on the aptly named Guy, a gay French model living in New York City.
The novel follows Guy’s life in the modeling industry from France to Manhattan, through hedonist parties and relationships with older, and then younger, men. Guy is blessed with almost unnatural good looks. Even when he ceases to be a young man, Guy remains exquisitely handsome, able to pass as 20 in his 40s.
Defying the standard tropes of fabulously good-looking models or celebrities, there are few hints of vapidness or vanity about him. As a narrator, he is always internally aware of how he looks and how he can use his gift to his benefit. Yet there is also a fundamental goodness and decency to Guy.
Early in the novel, he begins a short-lived romantic relationship with an older man, motivated primarily by thoughts of obtaining a beach house. Later, though, when this same man is dying alone from AIDS, Guy tenderly continues to visit and care for him.
Guy’s attractiveness as a character is enhanced by his general wit and insight. His commentary on the differences between France and America, presented as they are by a somewhat biased narrator, are amusing and thought-provoking. He recalls being called “down to earth” as “America’s highest and weirdest compliment.”
In moments like this, White pulls from his own biography: an American, born in Ohio, who spent many years living in France and New York. In this sense, Guy’s life trajectory is a mirror of White’s own.
It would be an exaggeration to call the book an AIDS novel, but the specter of the disease lingers in the background of Guy’s life. The lack of awareness that Guy and the rest of the world have about the disease — how it spreads, what causes it — is especially chilling.
“He knew Guy was scared … of this gay cancer thing as long as it lasted, maybe another year,” naively thinks one character. The reader is given the repeated sense that at this moment in history, the entire gay community was sitting quietly on the edge of apocalypse.
“Our Young Man” is largely an exploration of relationship dynamics, and as such it takes a realistic and explicit approach to its depictions of sex. And there are a lot of them.
Guy, from his early acts of self-discovery as a gay man to later maturity, is no prude when it comes to sex, nor is White in describing it. The frank descriptions of the physical workings of gay male sexuality, such as the differences between the roles of “top” and “bottom,” reflect the often shifting relationship dynamics between Guy and his lovers.
Furthermore, while “Our Young Man” is not an overtly political work, it does perform the important task of helping to reclaim the subject of physical love between men, one that is all too often restricted to polite euphemisms and subtle hints. For this reason alone, “Our Young Man” stands as an important novel.
Chris Baltz is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s master of fine arts creative writing program.
“Our Young Man,” by Edmund White (304 pages; Bloomsbury USA; $26)